The impact of Ethnic Studies: Critical hope and radical healing
Equity Corner by Tracie Noriega
October 18, 2021
Last October, I offered using the “Guiding Values and Principles of Ethnic Studies Teaching” as a model for our work with students, families and each other as we trekked through the pandemic. These guiding values and principles are rooted in humanization and critical consciousness. They include the values of love, respect, hope, solidarity and the celebration of community cultural wealth. As we all returned to school this year, still dealing with the current stage of the pandemic, I remind us of these values and principles to guide our hearts and minds as we make decisions that affect our communities.
You may wonder though, where did Ethnic Studies come from? In 1968, on the campus of San Francisco State University, the Black Student Union and other students of color joined forces and formed the Third World Liberation Front. These students began a strike that lasted over four months. They were fighting for the need to diversify the campus, but also to have courses that represented them, not the Eurocentric histories that were pervasive through university curriculum.
The result of this strike was the establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies and these four departments: American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Black Studies (now Africana Studies), and Raza Studies now (Latina/o Studies). As the San Francisco strike ended, students at UC Berkeley, under the banner of the TWLF began their strike to demand that the university acknowledge these communities of color. This three-month strike resulted in the formation of the Department of Ethnic Studies. These strikes inspired many other colleges, universities and high schools to implement Ethnic Studies courses.
What is Ethnic Studies? Ethnic Studies is centered on these four core disciplines: American Indian/Native American Studies, African-American Studies, Latinx/Chicanx Studies, and Asian American Studies (including Arab-American Studies). Ethnic Studies critically analyzes global white supremacy, U.S. imperialism and colonialism. Ethnic Studies analyzes the theories and practices of organizing and resistance towards liberation. Ethnic Studies works to eliminate racism, white supremacy culture and other forms of oppression. Not only is there Ethnic Studies content, there is Ethnic Studies pedagogy. The pedagogical practices employed are anti-racist, community responsive, abolitionist and inquiry based such as the use of Youth Participatory Action Research projects. Ultimately, Ethnic Studies prioritizes empathy, humanism, collectivism, radical healing and community. Radical healing is paramount. When one generation begins to heal from years of trauma, all generations will begin to heal as well.
This month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101, the ethnic studies graduation requirement. AB 101 includes what some call guard rail language, for example, “Not reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons.” What is interesting about this language is that it is already included in educational code, yet now explicit in this particular bill. It would seem that the origin of that code was to protect people of color from being discriminated against in the traditionally Eurocentric curriculum, but now this language in an Ethnic Studies bill that now protects whom?
As school and district administrators, it is incumbent on us to understand the origins, the need and the fight for Ethnic Studies, so we can support these programs fully in our schools and classrooms. Approximately 78 percent of students in California are students of color, therefore we must continue to center those four core communities that fought for Ethnic Studies in 1968. To that end, there are recommendations for implementing liberated Ethnic Studies. It starts with the belief that Ethnic Studies is necessary for students and our collective future. Implementation also necessitates an understanding of the community that you serve. Building on community cultural wealth, it is imperative that the community is involved in developing curriculum for ethnic studies classes.
AB 101 states that classes should begin in the 2025-26 school year. School districts may find that they need support and guidance in implementing Ethnic Studies. As students are asked to use a critical lens in their learning, we ask that districts do the same when determining who they partner with. Consider, what stance will the district take on implementing Ethnic Studies? How true are the facilitators staying to the original intent of Ethnic Studies and its guiding values and principles?
Last October, I mentioned my story and how Ethnic Studies gave me the words to describe my experience and begin to heal. You don’t have to take it from me though, here are the voices of those we need to continue to center — our students. These students are seniors in the Ethnic Studies Social Justice Academy at James Logan High School in Union City. These students and their stories of how Ethnic Studies has impacted them are the critical hope and radical healing that we all need.
“I’ve been a part of the Ethnic Studies and Social Justice Academy since my junior year. I was also in African American Hxstory and African American Issues last school year. Out of all of my classes, these were and are the only classes I look(ed) forward to.” — Nefrateiria Savage
“Ethnic Studies has taught me more about my culture and heritage that the Americentric, bias, white-washed textbooks could never teach my generation and I.” — Jonah Paul Laguio
“I was given the chance to learn more about my own history, my ancestors, and my classmates’ hxstory. I have been able to form a family-like bond with my classmates through this class and I am so grateful for that.” — Claire Chong
“I feel as though I have benefitted from Ethnic Studies courses over the years because it has allowed me to learn more about myself, my community, and how I can become a contributing person to our society.” — Caitlin Tongson
“I feel like I've gotten a better sense of my history as an Asian American.” — Robert Imperial

“It really opened my eyes to the struggles and hardships Asians faced. I knew it was hard for all POC in America but actually learning about what they had to go through is different than being told they had struggles like how normal classes do.” — Dominic Garcia
“Ever since joining ESSJ I've been able to learn more about myself and where I'm from and I've also gained a community of people I can trust and learn from.” — Jennie Riles
“It if weren’t for ESSJ, I don't think I would be this involved in social justice that I currently am.” — Daisy Gonzalez
“Honestly, any Ethnic Studies class would’ve given me that same feeling because before that, all we’ve learned about in school is white history, specifically white male history.” — Jordan Huynh
“I have been able to learn more about the past/history of this country through an unbiased perspective.” — Sanah Neemi
“The curriculum that is taught allows me to challenge my abilities to think critically.” — Natalie Pan
“I've learned how to be an advocate and how to be the voice for others who do not have the ability to speak up. I have been unlearning colonized history and learning what truly has happened in this world such as racism and how the colonizers have taken credit for the accomplishments of the indigenous and POC.” — Madison Li
“I’m able to apply both history and current events to how I go about my day — how I treat others, how I make decisions, and how I formulate opinions.” — Jazlyn Valdez
“It has opened my eyes to so much information about activism and anti-racism. I feel this is a necessary topic in education that unfortunately isn’t too common to learn about but with ESSJ, it’s possible.” — Malia Gonzales
Students from the Ethnic Studies Social Justice Academy at James Logan High School in Union City, which is coordinated by Ivan Viray Santos and is now in its fourth year.
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